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The Angel: A Christmas Ghost Story

Categories Fantasy, Cheating, Consensual Sex, Death

Authror: BlackRonin

Published: 12 December 2017

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“It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide. If that spirits goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

-Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”


***


It was midnight on Christmas Eve. All the lights were out in the big family house and snow covered the grounds, including the aged trees, the rusting gate, and the dignified monuments of the family crypts where 12 generations of the Barrow family slept.

Silently, a woman walked along the rows of graves. She left no tracks, and though she carried a lantern she also cast no shadow. She wore a long white robe with a deep hood that covered her face, a garment so pale and spotless that if anyone had been awake to see her it would have been impossible to distinguish the woman from the snow.

She went first to the tomb of old Lord William Barrow, an ancient, leaning thing almost overgrown with black moss, the face on the bust of Lord William out front nearly worn away by rain and snow, with the exception of his nose and his double chin.

With her free hand, the woman knocked twice at his mausoleum gate, which shook on its hinges and seemed to exhale a small, cold sigh of grave air, as if it had been holding its breath all year. And then, with a sound like a cork popping out of a champagne bottle, Lord William appeared in the snow, shaking the cobwebs from his old gray head.

"Christmas again?” he said, dusting off the starched collar they‘d buried him in. "I say, it seems to start earlier and earlier every year."

The silent woman said nothing. Lord William bowed to her anyway. She moved on.

Next came old Sir Barrow, who died fighting Edward Longshank's crusade in 1271 and whose bones Lord William brought with him to the New World, so much did he revere his ancestor‘s example. Sir Barrow answered the silent woman’s knock at his tomb right away, appearing still proud in his armor, carrying his helmet beneath one arm and his head beneath the other.

"Merry Christmas,” Sir Barrow told his esteemed descendant. “And just in time. I don’t know about you, but I could use for a spot of a good wine.”

“Capital idea,” said Lord Barrow, doffing his hat to his ancestor, who of course was unable to return the gesture.

One by one, row by row, the silent woman made her way to each grave. Next came Archibald Barrow, the family’s great poet, who never finished a verse in his entire life. Then came Sylvia Barrow, the admired opera singer whose notes could shatter glass and who accidentally destroyed most of the opera house windows during a performance of “Tosca“ in 1906 .

There was also Judith Barrow, hanged for a witch on Christmas day in 1692. And her uncle, Justice Thomas Barrow, who handed down the sentence. "An honest mistake," he said, as he did every year. Judith sniffed.

Edwin Barrow, the convicted cattle thief and black sheep of the family, came too. And Matilda Barrow, the family’s first and only doctor, who earned her degree while disguised as a man and attending the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Even Betsy Barrow, who sewed secret messages into rider’s cloaks during the Revolution and captured two British spies with the militia at the Pepperell bridge in 1776, appeared, putting aside old arguments with the ghosts of her Tory ancestors.

All the Barrows came up out of the ground when the woman with the lantern called them, yawning and stretching and greeting each other, their shadowy figures barely disturbing so much as a snowflake as they stepped out of their graves.

And when they were ready she led them away from the crypts and across the big field and up to the house, as she did every year. The living Barrows slept all snug in their beds, waiting for the first morning bells to wake them to another glorious Christmas in their ancestral home, none the wiser to what was going on downstairs.

It was a frightening looking parade ghouls coming into the mansion late on Christmas Eve, but they were a jolly lot too, full of singing and laughter. Little Peter Barrow, age eight, threw a snowball at Sir Barrow, meaning to knock his helmet off but sending his head rolling instead.

Mary Barrow, the Sunday school teacher who drowned trying to teach her students how Christ walked on the sea, convinced Sylvia to join the others in a few carols, and when she hit the high notes the rafters creaked.

They joked, they sang, and they shouted “Merry Christmas!“ at every opportunity, as Christmas Eve--being a time for miracles--was the only night of the year when fate allowed them out of the grave to make merry again.

In the family’s great dining hall, all decked out with holly and pine wreathes and mistletoe, a feast waited on the big long oak table (made from the first tree Lord William chopped down in this country). Roasted goose, candied yams, fresh berries, puddings from the ovens, seething bowls of punch, and of course, bottles of the finest wine from the Barrow family cellars piled it from one end to the other.

It was the leftovers from the living Barrow’s annual Christmas Eve dinner, left out because the servants all had the night off. But it was enough feed Barrow more than once, from the oldest ancient ancestor down to the youngest living descendant.

Eliza Barrow (who had once been just a household cook herself and married up by way of coy glances and good kidney pies), sampled every dish and declared it sufficiently excellent for all. Sir Barrow, holding his head in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, proposed a toast to the goodwill of all Barrows everywhere, and with that everyone fell to.

All the while the woman with the lantern remained in the doorway, simply watching.

The ghosts joked and laughed and ate enough that their stomachs would burst, if anybody had still had one. Everyone, that is, except for one.

Pretty Aurelia Barrow sat by herself at the edge of the table. Although many of her relations tried to make merry with her she refused each of them one by one, preferring to remain alone amidst the conviviality.

Aurelia was the newest addition to the annual gathering. She’d died the very day after Christmas just one year prior--also one day after her wedding. The bouquet she held now had still been fresh when they sealed her up in her coffin. Now it had wilted, just like her.

The family doctors hadn’t been able to say what had made her little heart stop beating in. “Perhaps too much joy was fatal in the end,” they told her shocked and ashen groom.

The others mostly respected Aurelia’s privacy. Death was hardest on the young, they knew. Wearing the wedding dress they’d buried her in, she picked the petals off her bouquet and let them slip through her pale fingers while looking up at the dusty and cobwebbed rafters of the great hall.

“It will get easier with time,” Mary Barrow assured her. “And after all, your young man will be joining us himself sooner or later. The years will pass before you know it.”

Pretending to smile, Aurelia nodded. She didn’t tell Mary or anyone else what she was thinking: That a day of being dead felt longer than an eternity of being alive, and that an eternity of eternities felt like too much to bear.

Had she been alive still, she’d have killed herself to put an end to the entire affair. But being dead, she had no choice but to abide.

She gave the others polite but melancholy smiles whenever they looked her way, and soon enough everyone stopped bothering even to do that. Eventually, the family forgot that the ghostly bride was even there.

And that’s when she made her move.

Slipping away from the table, Aurelia disturbed only a dangling stock of mistletoe over the doorway as she passed. Old oil paintings of every generation of Barrows decorated the dark hallways and looming arches as she scampered silently down the halls. Young or old, short or tall, fat or thin, each face had a distinct and unmistakable Barrowness about it.

All except for the last one: a painting of Aurelia herself. They must have commissioned it after she died. It cost a fortune by the look of it, and she lingered, touched by the sentiment. But this wasn’t what she was looking for.

Turning up the spiraling staircase, the hem of her long white dress trailing on each step and her veil fluttering distractedly around her head, Aurelia climbed up and up to the fourth floor of the family home. So intent was she on where she was going, Aurelia never noticed the woman with the lantern, standing at the foot of the steps and watching her go…

The door she wanted was at the end of the hall, closed but unlocked. The hinge squeaked, but only a little. The room looked very much like she remembered it, a bedroom neither too large nor too small, neither too rich nor too bare, but with a perfect ease of hominess and ease.

The only thing different was another new painting, also of her, this one in miniature, set up on a bedside table, with flowers piled so high around it even in the middle of winter that they nearly buried the frame. A candle here had burned down to almost nothing. Aurelia’s cold heart broke at the sight of it. Wiping away tears, she laid the remains of her bouquet down and turned to look at the bed.

Thomas lay asleep under many winter blankets, his brow furrowed, as if worried by his dreams. Aurelia touched his forehead. How handsome he was. How handsome and how sad.

“My poor, sweet Thomas,” she said, kneeling, her dress piling up underneath her on the winter rugs. “What I wouldn’t give to be here with you for this Christmas.” She sighed. “And next Christmas. And every Christmas after that. And every one from now until the end of--”

Then her words stopped, as if someone turned a valve in her throat.

She saw the hand on Thomas’ shoulder. And an arm connected to that hand. And a person connected to that arm, with curly brown hair and no clothes on, Aurelia’s eyes growing wider and more skeptical as they picked out and enumerated the other woman’s parts one by one and, slowly, skeptically, conceived of the ramifications of their presence.

The sleeping woman sighed in her sleep and cuddled closer to Thomas’ back. She looked young and disgustingly untroubled. Peering at the other woman‘s face, Aurelia found it disturbingly familiar, and after a few seconds she finally placed it as one of the family maids, although she couldn’t remember her name just now.

She felt her face turn red with anger. Or imagined she felt it, since her veins had no blood for a true flush. She did the best she could.

“So,” Aurelia said, turning back to Thomas.

“So that’s how it is. You couldn’t even wait a year. Or did you wait at all? Maybe you were always keeping her on the side somewhere, and I just never noticed?”

Thomas didn’t answer, of course, although the lines on his brow became deeper. A puff of winter air accompanied each of Aurelia’s words, and she saw him flinch at the cold. Leaning down, she whispered in his ear.

“That’s all right, darling After all, it’s Christmas. A time to forgive.”

Her cold fingers grabbed great handfuls of the bed sheets.

“Just to show you there are no hard feelings, I’ll sing you a Christmas Carol. You always did tell me I had a lovely voice.”

And then, getting even closer to his ear, she screamed as loud as she could.

Waking with a start, Thomas kicked all of the blankets off the bed in a mad thrash. He was covered in sweat from head to toe, leaving himself to shiver as the chilly winter air nipped his skin. His heart pounded until he feared it would pop. Next to him, Beth stirred and put a hand on his back.

“What is it?” she said.

“Didn’t you hear that?” Thomas said, the tightness in his chest strangling his voice.

“Hear what?” said Beth, waking up fully and looking alarmed now herself at the expression on his face. Thomas opened his mouth and very nearly spoke the first, insane answer that danced on the tip of his tongue…

But he stopped himself. “A dream,” he said instead. “I had a dream that frightened me. That’s all.”

Even as he spoke he lit a new candle and held it out to look around, checking each dark corner of the room one at a time, half afraid to find…he wasn’t sure what. But when nothing was there all the same he went limp with relief.

“A dream,” he said again, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Beth put her arms around his neck. “What did you dream?”

“There was…” He furrowed his brow again. “An angel. Standing over the bed and watching us sleep.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Beth, but Thomas shook his head.

“It was terrible. For some reason I was horribly afraid of her. And then she said something I can’t remember, and then…I woke up.” He rubbed his eyes, trying to dash away the lingering fragments of the dream. “Very strange.”

“I think it’s silly to be scared of an angel on Christmas Eve,” said Beth. “But you are a silly bear, aren’t you?”

“The sky is getting light,” Thomas said, looking at the window and then standing and dressing in haste.

“Where are you going?”

“I need to check on something. The horses.”

“They’re all to bed. What’s the matter?” She rose and began dressing herself, but Thomas stopped her.

“I only need a walk to clear my head. You should rest.”

“If you’re sure?” Beth said, lingering over the last word. Thomas kissed her until she seemed reassured. He felt her eyes on his back as he left, padding down the corridors of Barrow Hall as quietly as he could.

The portraits of his ancestors seemed to stare particularly acutely this morning. Once or twice Thomas thought he heard singing from some distant part of the house, but every time he stopped to listen it faded away. Nerves, he told himself.

Outside it was a clear, cold evening, the sky in the east starting to turn the color of cut ice as the stars retreated and the world stood at the threshold of night and day.

Fresh snow was everywhere, and Thomas found the crunch of his boots in its unmarred surface gratifying. Already his conscience stung him for leaving Beth behind without any better explanation, but she might think he was going mad if he’d told her what he was really doing…

The dream (already a gray and half-remembered thing now) had left him with a lingering fear he dared not put into words. He just had to check and make sure that…something…was still where it should be.

His breath made ghostly clouds as he tromped across the meadow. Up ahead, the family burial ground poked up out of the frost, with old monument stones leaning this way and that. As a boy he’d known every name on every inscription, and most of the family histories that went with them.

Now there was one extra grave, with a name and a date he knew very well but preferred not to think about.

He walked up and down the rows, as if inspecting them. When he finally came to the last mausoleum, nothing was out of place.

Of course not, he thought, tracing the letters of Aurelia‘s name on the plaque out front and brushing away the ice. What did you expect, he asked himself?

But he knew the answer: He’d expected to find Aurelia here. Maybe sitting on one of the old graves and waiting for him, looking just as she had last Christmas Eve. For some reason, he’d been certain that’s what he’d find…but there was nothing here now.

Sighing, he laid his head against the iron gates. “Merry Christmas, darling,” he said. “I wish I was…”

But he didn’t know what more to add. What was there to say? Who was even listening?

I‘ll freeze to death if I stand out here all morning, he thought, and he actually did turn to go after some minutes more. But something in the corner of his eye made him stop: movement? Someone there? Turning around, he discovered no one.

But the mausoleum gate was open now. Just a little bit….

The chain wrapped around its bars hung slack, the end swaying back and forth. The links felt bitterly cold as he took hold of it. It must have come loose on its own, he thought. It had looked tightly wound a second ago, but still, that must have been what happened. What else could it be?

Finally making himself turn to go, Thomas blinked when he saw what was lying at his feet: a single, wilted flower. Bending down, he brushed the ice off of it and turned it over. There were always flowers in the burial ground, of course, especially at Aurelia’s grave. But they should all be buried beneath the snow now, just like her…

There was another one by the gate. And then, unbelievably, another one further on. One by one he picked each up, following a trail all the way across the fields and back to the house.

But not back to the main entrance, where he’d come in. Instead they led back to a servant entrance in an out of the way wing of the house, where no one ever went.

Here, instead of deserted rooms, he found a little place with a fire, a table, chairs, a bed, and pitchers and dishes laid out. He thought he recognized some of the furniture, all old things that had belonged to his great grandmother, collecting dust in these old rooms for years and years. Now somehow it all looked new again.

And right in the midst of it all was Aurelia, sitting on a stool beside the hearth. She looked like he had when they married: healthy, full, red-cheeked, quick. Not the pale and drawn and blue-lipped thing they‘d buried here a year ago. He waited for her to disappear like morning mist, but she persisted.

And when she moved and he heard the telltale rustle of her shining white wedding dress, Thomas’ knees gave out.

Amazingly, she was at his side fast enough to catch him. Aurelia lifted him up like he weighed no more than her veil, and when he was on his feet again she kissed his cheeks and his chin and his forehead and his lips a hundred times over, until he began kissing her back in that thoughtless and delirious way that made it impossible to say anything except the meaningless murmur of “Darling, darling, darling…”

They sat together on the thick, furry rug in front of the fire. A single Yule log popped and hissed behind the grate. When he finally found his voice again he said, “Aurelia…what is this? What’s happening?”

“Shhh,” she said. “We don’t have much time. Let’s not waste it with a lot of questions.”

“But I have to understand,” Thomas said. “You died. We buried you. Now you’re here again. Am I losing my mind?”

“It’s real, darling. I’m real.”

Aurelia pressed her hands--warm and soft--around his and squeezed more tightly. But then behind her veil her eyes grew dark and suspicious. “Or are you disappointed to see me again? Maybe there’s someone else you’d rather see this morning?”

His blood boiling almost immediately, Thomas said, “What a thing to say! All the days and all the nights I’ve spent wishing for just one more minute with you--”

“All the days, maybe,” Aurelia said, turning to look at the fire. “But it seems you’ve had other things on your mind during the nights. Beth, is that her name? Is she waiting for you now? Or is one of the advantages of taking up with the help that you can come and go without questions?”

It seemed her hand grew cold in Thomas’ fingers. He grew pale himself, and his blood turned chill. And then he stammered. “It’s…not what you think. Beth is…is…”

“She’s what?” said Aurelia, in a voice like an icepick, and Thomas found himself uncertain what to say. It was a question he’d been avoiding answering for some time, in his private moments.

Among other things, she was the only thing that ever managed to stop him from thinking about Aurelia day and night. For a while he’d been counting the days and the years he considered himself likely to keep living. If not for Beth, he might have ended it all himself months ago. But he couldn’t say that.

She was also someone he’d throw away a million times if Aurelia told him to. But of course he couldn’t say that either. And he blushed with shame thinking about badly it would hurt Beth to hear him say so, although she must have realized something like it herself a long time ago.

After what seemed like an eternity, words began tumbling out of Thomas’ mouth again: “Aurelia, I…I can‘t make any excuse for myself. Life is short; I’ve always known that, but this last year I’ve only become more miserably certain of it than ever. Since I lost you I’ve done what little I can to feel even a millionth of the happiness I would have known if you had lived, knowing that even that little bit could be gone in a day.

“If that’s wrong, then I’ll accept the judgment for it when my time comes. And I won‘t lie now and tell you that I wouldn‘t do the same things all over again. But if I‘d suspected for an instant you were anywhere waiting for me, nothing and no one on Earth could have stopped me from coming to you. You know that.”

At first Aurelia stayed so still that, beneath the sterling whiteness of her dress, she might have been a statue. Then she turned and said:

“She means nothing to you, right?”

Licking his lips Thomas said, “Yes,” even though in his heart he knew that wasn’t entirely true.

“Nothing matters to you except for our love?”

“Absolutely,” Thomas said, this time more sincerely. That seemed good enough for Aurelia, who nodded and pulled her veil back, letting the firelight dance in her dark eyes.

“Then come to me,” she said, putting her arms out for him. Standing, Thomas swept her up and carried her to the bed, where she flung herself around his neck and smothered him with kisses so desperate and hard that he already felt his heart breaking.

He buried his face in the side of her neck, kissing the spot where it curved into her shoulder. Aurelia was already trying to pull her wedding dress off, and when she tore away part of it he cupped her small breasts with both hands and felt her nipples against his palms. Her heart beat underneath his palm, and Thomas felt her shake from head to toe.

The bed groaned as he climbed on top of her and seized the headboard, overcome with the urgency of the moment. She gasped and cried out “Thomas!” just once as he pushed her legs apart. And then, “Oh yes, yes, my darling, finally…”

With impatient fingers she tugged at his trousers. “I’ve missed you so much,“ she said. “I can’t wait. Now, Thomas, please now.” And then she swallowed his mouth with a deep and hungry kiss, even as she reached down and pulled out his hard and swollen prick and pressed him into her.

Taking a deep breath and holding it he slid in, the tip first and then the rest one inch at a time. Aurelia’s little body clenched tight around him, and he pressed her deep into the bed with hard kisses and soft touches. Every movement of their bodies together sent shivers through him. He thrust deeper into her and she moaned: "Oh god. Please..."

His hands roamed across her, pulling aside faded lace to get closer to pale, desperate flesh, reliving the slope of her back, the curve of her hips, and the firmness of her breasts.

“Oh please…”

He pinched her swollen nipples and then pressed one to his mouth. She shuddered through and through, writhing underneath him as he thrust frantically and furiously, the old bed straining to bear their exertion.

"Please!"

He felt wetness dribbling down the inside of her thighs. She was sopping wet in a way that was almost obscene, and he was buried all the way in it, moving in a tight circular motion and grinding his body underneath hers. He was covered in sweat, his hair damp, but she looked perfect and unperturbed, glistening with light instead of perspiration.

“Thomas, darling, send me to heaven…”

And then suddenly she rose up, grabbing him and pulling him down with a strength that took him off guard. He tried to sit up but she pushed him back down again. "Stay right there," she said again. “Let me feel you.“

She pushed down on top of him until they came together again and then back and forth on him, her fingers digging into his bare shoulders. Thomas cupped her breasts and squeezed them as she rode, then sat up to lick a wet circle around one nipple. She gasped, and he did it again with the other. Then she wiggled her hips back and forth, and braced herself against the wall to push down on him harder. He sucked one breast all the way into his mouth.

Aurelia pushed back and forth on him, riding his body with intense and free abandon. She‘d never been like this before; neither had he, he realized. Even after he felt himself finish, bursting with a wet, hot gush inside of her body, she didn‘t let him stop, pushing him down again and continuing to ride, her pale body pinning his down and her kisses growing harder and more insistent, as if she meant to devour him with them.

Only when he begged complete exhaustion did she stop, and even then she seemed coiled and read as she lay at his side, as if always waiting for something. Troubled and anxious, Thomas tried not to think about what.

On the verge of delirious sleep, he stirred at a sound from far away. Sitting up, he shrugged Aurelia’s protesting hands off his arms and said, “The church bells!”

“It’s just the wind.”

“It’s the bells in town. It’s Christmas Morning.”

“It’s not,” said Aurelia. The fire seemed to have burned away, leaving them in the dark with the curtains drawn. And then she said, “Thomas, come with me.”

All of his hairs stood on end. “Come…where?”

“Does it matter?” said Aurelia, drawing herself around him tighter. Her body felt strange now, although he couldn’t quite say why. “Wherever it is, we’ll be together. Isn’t that what you really want?”

“It is,” said Thomas. “But…something isn’t right. You’re dead, Aurelia. I know by some miracle that you’re here right now, but that doesn’t change it: You’re dead and I’m not.”

“So what?” she said, and clung to him again. “Why should that matter? Why should anything matter? Come with me, darling. Be mine. Forever…”

Forcefully, Thomas stood up. The haze of a waking dream broke like ice. He backed away, “It’s morning,” he said again, somewhat dumb. “They’ll be looking for me.” He dressed himself hastily, with fingers shaking.

“Come away….” said Aurelia.

“No.”

“Come way…” She whispered, and the cold, ruthless hunger in her voice made his stomach drop.

Thomas backed into the wall. Looking like a black shape against a blacker void, Aurelia closed in on him. “You promised you’d be mine forever. It was our wedding vow.”

Her dress rustled in the dark as she reached out for him. Thomas flinched, anticipating the dreaded touch of cold fingers…

And then a light so bright that he had to look away filled the room. Aurelia gasped.

When he felt he could risk a glance, Thomas was amazed to see a woman in a gray robe and hood standing in the doorway, holding up a lantern as bright as the sun. She’d covered it slightly with her hand, but even now it left dazzled spots in Thomas’ eyes. And the woman seemed to nod at him, although the movement was so slight it might not have happened at all.

Then she said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

Thomas stammered. “I…I didn’t…”

But it was Aurelia who answered: “It’s not fair,” she said. Her voice sounded like the rustling of dry branches.

“It’s time,” said the woman with the lantern. “Come away.”

“Thomas, don’t let her take me again!” Aurelia said, trying to grab onto his arm. She’d covered her face now by lowering her veil, but when she reached out for him he saw her hands: those bony, grasping fingers…

Thomas ran. He didn’t stop running until he was out of the house, falling in the snow and picking himself up and running again, plowing a crazed and uneven path that stopped only when he slipped and fell to his hands and knees again, his ragged breaths punishing his lungs with every gulp of frigid morning air.

Whipping his head around, he expected to see a woman in a faded and decayed wedding gown following after him, maybe even set to catch up now that he’d stopped. A scream had welled up in his throat already…

But nothing was there.

The morning light on the fresh snow made his eyes hurt (or so he imagined, already willing himself to think that the vision of the lantern as bright somehow hadn’t happened and something else could account for him being here now), but he could see well enough to know that he was entirely alone.

And then, for a heart-stopping second, as he stood and dusted snow off of himself, Thomas imagined he DID see a woman after all. All the way on the other side of the field, but looking in his direction.

But soon he realized that it was just the statue that stood at the cemetery gates. It had been there for as long as anyone could remember, the gray figure of a woman angel, her face all but covered by the hood of her robe, and holding a lantern over her head.

Father always told Thomas that the Barrow ancestors put it there to light the way to the next world, so that the souls of their departed family would always have a guide to show them the way.

Assuming any of them wanted to go.

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